On Human Universals

Feline experience filtered through a primate's body. Written 2.14.09.

Lately I like the brain. I took out a lot of books from the library, crouched up next to the heater and started reading Diane Ackerman, An Alchemy of Mind.

Page 134, "in 1989, Donald E. Brown created a List of Human Universals." I mean, man, that's just neat. What being human is and what it means, and how it expresses everything it thinks about.

So I roll down the list taking in:

abstraction in speech and thought
collective identities
coyness display
dream interpretation
attempts to predict the future
distinguishing between good and bad
personal names
private inner life
turn-taking ...

The thing about this eye-popping group is that it gives a lushness to nonhuman reality, concrete and individual, doesn't interpret, not coy, not given to storytelling, only tentatively connecting to the future through memory, little good, little bad, no syntax ... Life without narrative or intellectual constructions, only sensory input, bundles of fast-running chemicals, fur and scales that grow thoughtless and abundant. Haunches rumbling and round eyes only seeing and paws that thump without "What is this thumping?"

The more I write it down, the more I begin to think of it, I lose it more and more. And continually.

That life doesn't slow itself down to understand, instead concerned (barely so) with that hot complexity of biology only, a brain without our kinks and folds, without intention, and still bursting with the astounding mostly consciousless separation of Other and Me, Food and Not-to-Eat, Will-Hurt and Nothing-to-Fear. Food and water, movement-or-not, perception unmucked with the beautiful gumminess of all our meta-perceptions.

And what weird jolts of this even manage to surface in us. I'm conscious of leopard through a human brain, my understanding of it is glazed over with myth and magic, "private inner life" and a collective identity called Animal People. So when it comes up, which it doesn't much anymore, and someone gives me a look that wonders "Escapism?"—I just smile with my human face muscles. And I answer politely with a human tongue straining in a human mouth, talking through that funniest humanness called language.

I say I don't understand it, I don't do any exercises of cognition on it.

It comes out when I know cat through the tread of a long human foot. It comes out when I look at a friend, like a primate might, and I see that our eyes and posture mirror each other: that we can look over that and recognize hey, felid.

I bump steadily along the wooden walkway of the animal preserve, the swivel of my hips holding me up-and-down. There's a woman a few paces away talking about the territorial habits of male leopards. I know what she'll say before she says it. It's not that I'm a mind reader, which I couldn't be, or a magician, which I sometimes work at. Leopard behavior doesn't come easy to me because it doesn't come at all. It's already here living in my body's electricity, not just speaking a foreign language, but working a foreign brain.

Folklore without consciousness and myth without speech.

Another human universal: interest in living things that resemble us. Some people's families or tribes, descended from bears and wolves, other smart mammals with the same gaze as humans. Forward-looking, that is. Predators' faces.

Burning through a crucible of knowledge and instinct, and coming out the other side unscorched, irrelevant to either, neutral, both: I have dreamed Homo sapiens and interpreted Panthera pardus. I don't know how when where why and maybe not even what. I'm a cat! What kind of funny scratched-up myth-magic-dream archetype-global concrete-and-everyday beautiful is that? —I don't know what kind, but I guess I know beautiful.

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